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​Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson speaks with 2nd Lt. Trevis Day, 4th Space Control Squadron crew commander, during her first base visit as SECAF to Peterson AFB, Colo., May 22, 2017. Wilson met with airmen who execute space control operations in support of Air Force Space Command and combatant commander priorities. Air Force photo by A1C Dennis Hoffman.

—Wilson Brissett

Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis each sent letters to Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio) on Tuesday expressing support for his proposal to block the formation of a separate Space Corps within the Air Force. The letters arrived the day before the House is set to begin floor debate on the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, which in its current form would require the Air Force to build a Space Corps—essentially a new military service with its own Chief of Staff—by 2019.

Turner’s amendment proposes to strike the section of the 2018 NDAA requiring a Space Corps and replace it with a report on “whether there is a strategic need to establish a Space Corps as part of the Air Force.”

In her letter, Wilson says the service is already “taking a number of very significant steps to address the emerging threats to space,” and argues that a Space Corps would slow down these efforts and complicate national security space operations.

She says that Turner’s study would be “consistent with on-going efforts” previously required by Congress “to assess the range of management and organizational options across the entire national security space enterprise.”

A new Space Corps, “would create additional seams between the services, disrupt ongoing efforts to establish a warfighting culture and new capabilities, and require costly duplication of personnel and resources,” she writes.

Wilson says Air Force Space Command is currently too small to merit “a headquarters element similar to the Marine Corps.” The Air Force today has only 2,500 “true space operators,” she writes. “If we can justify a separate space force, we can justify a separate service for submarines, for cyber warriors, for the Army Corps of Engineers to run our water projects, for the military health service, or for special operations.”

Instead of pulling space operations out on its own, Wilson urges Congress to help the Air Force “integrate, normalize, and elevate space” within joint DOD operations. “Any option that separates space operations from the joint warfighter,” she warns, would not only violate the Goldwater-Nichols Act, but would be “counterproductive to addressing the very real threats that exist.”

AFA President Larry Spencer said, “We concur with the Air Force’s position calling for further study before establishing a separate Space Corps within the Department of the Air Force."

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis also wrote a letter to Turner urging Congress “to reconsider the proposal of a separate service Space Corps.”

While Mattis says that he shares “congressional concerns about the organization and management of the department’s space capabilities,” he insists that, “a properly integrated approach is better for carrying out this mission.”

Mattis is partly concerned that there has not been enough time to debate the idea. “To date there have been only limited hearings in advance of proposing a separate Space Corps,” he writes, “and we need the opportunity to engage with all concerned stakeholders with equity in this issue.”

Mattis says he wants to work “with Congress to implement necessary military space organizational changes,” but that “it is premature to add additional organizational and administrative tail to the department at a time I am trying to reduce overhead.”

He adds that a separate Space Corps would not address “our nation’s fiscal problems,” and he blames “the impact of 30 continuing resolutions over a 10-year period” for creating a budgetary environment where the DOD has been “unable to take steps that would have assuaged congressional concerns” over the organization of the national security space enterprise.

He writes that repealing the Budget Control Act is the best way to move forward “without risking negative second and third-order effects on our warfighting abilities and the fiscal solvency of our nation.”

Turner referenced both letters when in testimony before the House Rules Committee Wednesday afternoon, seeking that committee’s approval to allow his amendment for floor debate. He told the committee that more time and effort was needed to familiarize lawmakers with the Space Corps proposal. “Most members of the House have no idea that we’re about to create another service branch, and I think that bears—at that level—a need for us to have debate on the House floor,” Turner said.

He also noted that the cost of the move needs to be studied. Though Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), who has proposed the Space Corps, says it will have essentially no cost, Turner said he finds that hard to believe.

“We do not know what the proposed costs are,” Turner told the committee. The Congressional Budget Office has not scored the proposal, and Air Force spokesperson Capt. Annmarie Annicelli told Air Force Magazine that the service has not prepared an estimate.

“An estimate on standing-up a US Space Corps will take great analysis,” she said in an email. “Releasing information at this point on draft legislation would be premature."

Turner also told the committee that Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, and Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee—two committees that bear congressional responsibility for space programs—were both opposed to the formation of a Space Corps. The Rules Committee was set to decide on Wednesday night whether to allow the amendment for floor debate.

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), chairman of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, and Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), ranking member of the same subcommittee, also appeared before the Rules committee to respond to Turner.

Rogers rejected the idea that the intelligence community would object to the Space Corps proposal, insisting that “we took our language through the Intelligence Committee” and that “we exempted all intelligence assets” from the proposal as well. He said no intelligence community space operations would be forced into the new Space Corps. On the cost of the proposal, Rogers said, “We don’t know what cost there will be, if any. It hasn’t been designed yet.” But he was insistent on the urgent need for the move.

“The national security risks are real and to delay this another year would be just completely irresponsible,” he told the committee. He said that Russia and China have already formed separate space forces and used them to challenge US superiority in the domain. Cooper sharpened the message, saying that classified briefings on the capabilities of US adversaries had convinced him that a failure to solve the problems in national security space decision-making could lead to “the risk of another 9/11 or Pearl Harbor.”

If the nation fails to adequately respond to the threat, he said, “We would be blinded, deafened, and impotent before we knew what happened.”